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Why Backlinks Don’t Matter in 2023 (And What Actually Does)

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Last Updated on June 12, 2023 by SERP Kingz

Have you been losing sleep, tirelessly accumulating backlinks like they’re going out of style, hoping it’ll skyrocket your website’s Google ranking? There’s got to be a better way, right?

Well, grab a 2nd cup of coffee and settle in for a couple minutes—because it’s high time we debunked some myths and unraveled some truths about backlinks in SEO.

Rethinking Backlinks: It’s Not What You Think

Your old mate John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst and official agony uncle* for all things Google, once spilled some piping hot tea (or whatever) about backlinks during one of those interminable Google Search Central SEO hangouts.

*This is a term I learned today. I had my doubts but it’s listed in the Cambridge Dictionary amid other real, completely legitimate words like petfluencer and deadass.

Anyway, for those of you who’ve been snoozing in the back of the SEO classroom since 1996, backlinks are those links from other sites to yours. Google traditionally sees them as a thumbs-up, a signal of quality and authority.

So, you’d think the more backlinks, the merrier, right? Wrong.

If we’re honest, the SEO game has been kind of a wild west, where people think a website with a million backlinks is akin to a goldmine. As if sheer numbers would woo the elusive Google algorithm into submission. Not so fast, cowboys and cowgirls.

According to Johnny (and everyone), Google isn’t easily impressed.

More specifically, Google isn’t as obsessed with backlinks as many of us feel we’ve been led to believe.

(Google’s actually been very candid about this for years now, but many marketers choose to ignore it.)

via GIPHY

In short, you don’t need a mountain of backlinks: You need the right ones.

Honestly, in today’s SEO climate, it’s tempting to say you don’t really need to worry about backlinks at all. (And in fact, a lot of you reading this right now probably don’t need to.)

Why would you need to worry, then?

If you’re having trouble getting your site indexed.

The Backlink Bottleneck

If your website doesn’t have enough backlinks, Google’s bots might take their sweet time indexing it. (We’re talking last drop of ketchup from the bottle speed.)

That aside, while backlinks are a small SEO signal, they’re not the be-all and end-all. You see, Google’s algorithm is a little more discerning, a tad more sophisticated than you might have given it credit for.

According to our good pal Mueller, Google’s search algorithm doesn’t fall head over heels for just any backlink. Instead, it’s looking for backlinks with substance—links that are highly relevant and come from reputable sources.

So, what does this mean for your SEO strategy?

One good, quality link from a relevant website can beat the pants off millions of those low-quality, spammy links you bought off a bloke (?) in a dodgy SEO forum. (We told you not to do that!)

Who would’ve thought that Google, with all its complex algorithms and nerdy brilliance, actually values quality over quantity?

But how does Google decide what’s a “good” link?

Picture this: you’re at a party full of strangers, but your best friend vouches for you. Suddenly, you’re in. Same thing with Google.

It’s not about how many friends (read: links) you have, but who those friends are. If you’ve got a link from a site that Google already trusts, then, congrats! You’re in the secret club!

Don’t get me wrong—Google doesn’t hate a lot of backlinks, but it doesn’t value that like it used to either. It’s more about the relevance of the link. It’s about being in the right places, not all places.

Backlinks Schmacklinks: 10 Things That Almost Always Move the Needle More Than Links

  1. Quality Content Marketing“: No matter how many backlinks you’ve amassed, if your content is subpar, you won’t gain any significant traffic. High-quality, engaging, and useful content is the foundation of good SEO.
  2. “On-Page SEO Optimization”: This includes ensuring your titles, headings, and meta descriptions are compelling and keyword-optimized. It also includes optimizing images and ensuring your website is mobile-friendly.
  3. “User Experience (UX)”: Google increasingly emphasizes the importance of a good user experience—or at the very least, a not-terrible one. At some point, they’re even expected to apply this requirement to their own web interfaces as well.
  4. “Keyword Research”: Knowing what your target audience is searching for is crucial. Optimizing for the right keywords is far more effective than a thousand irrelevant backlinks.
  5. “Local SEO”: For businesses operating in a specific geographic area, local SEO can be far more beneficial than trying to rank globally. Ensuring your business appears in local search and Google Maps can do wonders.
  6. “Social Signals”: While not a direct ranking factor, a strong social media presence can help drive traffic and indirectly boost your SEO efforts.
  7. “Technical SEO”: This includes things like making sure your website is secure (HTTPS), has a well-structured XML sitemap, and doesn’t have any broken links or pages.
  8. “Regularly Updating Old Content”: Google loves fresh content.Refreshing old content can give you a significant boost and is almost always more beneficial than focusing on building backlinks.
  9. “Site Structure and Internal Linking”: A well-organized site structure helps Google to understand and index your site. Good internal linking can also help to distribute link equity around your site.
  10. “CTR and Bounce Rate”: These are user interaction signals that Google takes into account. Having a high click-through rate (CTR) from search results and a low bounce rate (i.e., people find what they’re looking for on your site and stick around) is a good indicator of a quality website.

SEO Game Plan: Precision Over Volume

Let me hit you with a scenario Mueller himself has pitched: Imagine your page getting linked from a major news site. You’d be as giddy as a kid getting a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle on Christmas morning, and rightly so. Google sees the page with the incoming link as an “important” page, even if that’s one of the only incoming links it has. It’s like getting a shoutout from Belinda Montgomery herself on Instagram—one word from Queen B, and you’re suddenly having to block the door with furniture to fend off all the promotional offers. (Doogie Howser’s mom? No?)

Yes, the SEO world seems to be constantly heating up, shifting, and flip-flopping—like a burger on the grill at Guy Fieri’s Flavortown. But one principle remains as steady as Guy’s frosted tips: Google loves relevance and quality.

via GIPHY

So, if you’ve been sweating like a cook at a diner, drive-in, and/or dive at noon trying to get as many backlinks as possible—take a breather. You might be trying to deep-fry Twinkies when what you need is a perfectly-seared steak.

Er, let me put this another way…

If You Don’t Build It… They Will Come

Your SEO strategy needs to focus less on sheer volume and more on precision targeting. The Google algorithm, a meticulously designed piece of software engineering, prioritizes relevance and quality when it comes to backlinks.

Contrary to what some might believe, the total number of backlinks a website has isn’t a primary factor. This isn’t a matter of tossing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Instead, it’s a strategic game. According to Google themselves, a single valuable backlink from a relevant and authoritative website can have a more significant impact on your site’s ranking than millions of low-quality ones. And we know this to be true.

JohnMu (or J.Mu as he sometimes goes by) is even on the record predicting that backlinks will continue to become less important to Google’s algorithms as time goes on.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily ignore backlinks 100%—but content is way more important. Google still uses backlinks as a signal—one signal—of a site’s authority and relevance. But much of the time, all the effort and time it takes to build those is best spent elsewhere. Provide legitimately high-quality content and the backlinks will come naturally.

If you are set on getting some backlinks, put that energy into getting one quality link or a couple quality links instead.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to backlinks, it’s not a numbers game. It’s a relevance game. And as Mueller, Google’s Chief Search Agony Uncle would tell you: it’s quality over quantity every time.

Take it from an old SEO hand with 15+ years of search engine marketing (SEM) consulting experience—this isn’t a tip to take lightly. With Google, less really can be more.

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